Read by Janelle: August 2015 – Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

Stone Mattress

by Margaret Atwood

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Published 2014

Genres: Fiction / Literary / Short Stories / Suspense

You believed you could transcend the body as  you aged, she tells herself. You believed you could rise above it, to a serene, non-physical realm. But it’s only through ecstasy you can do that, and ecstasy is achieved through the body itself. Without the bone and sinew of wings, no flight. Without that ecstasy you can only be dragged further down by the body, into its machinery. Its rusting, creaking, vengeful, brute machinery.”

Janelle says…

Stone Mattress is a collection of 9 short stories – 3 of which are connected. Within this collection you have suspense, murder, revenge, themes of ageing and self-examination, and a lot of imagination and a hint of crazy. I love stories that take a seemingly everyday scenario, and then throw in a completely fantastical element to turn everything on its head. That’s what this collection does.

In the first three stories, we follow Constance who is learning to depend only on herself and examining her worth after the death of her husband, Gavin who is Constance’s ex and appears to be having some kind of mid or late-life crisis, and Jorrie, a former fleeting affair of Gavin’s who answers to no one but is about to be stopped in her tracks. All three characters are in the last phases of their lives and questioning their decisions of the past, including the ones relating to each other. Even in their old age, many years since they were closely connected to each other, they are still affecting one another in different ways.

Then we have “Lusus Naturae”, the sad story of a young girl with vampire tendencies that cast her out from her family and community.  “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth” was probably my least favourite story in the collection. It’s a story about relationships and friendships and the two “ships” colliding. For some reason I just didn’t connect with it as much as the other stories.

In “The Dead Hand Loves You”, a celebrity horror-novel author broods over the unwise, snap decision he made over the distribution of profits from his book sales. In the title story “Stone Mattress”, an aging seductress crosses paths with someone from her disturbing past who she would rather forget, while on an adventure cruise holiday. Consequently, she takes her revenge. And in “Torching the Dusties”, we watch from the POV of a visually-impaired elderly woman as a raging protest mob surrounds her retirement village and barricades the residents in, in order to carry out their evil intentions.

My favourite story of the collection is probably “The Freeze-Dried Groom”. The idea of it is just so crazy, you could almost imagine seeing it as a headline on the nightly news. It’s the kind of bizarre “what-if” scenario I create in my head all the time, and then quickly dismiss as being totally outrageous. I really should start writing them down, there could be good material there.

Basically, in The Freeze-Dried Groom an antiques dealer goes along to a storage locker auction, with a shady ulterior motive of securing a particular locker that’s related to some dodgy criminal stuff he’s involved in. He wins a number of lockers at the auction, and later when he is looking through them all, he finds the contents of one to be just slightly disturbing. I’ll let Margaret explain…

“He’s getting a very odd feeling. He squeezes in past the dress. If what he’s thinking is right, there ought to be some champagne: there’s always champagne for weddings. Sure enough, here it is, three crates of it, unopened. It’s a miracle it hasn’t frozen and burst. Beside it are several boxes of champagne flutes, also unopened: glass ones, not plastic, good quality. And some boxes of white china plates, and a big box of white napkins, cloth, not paper. Someone has stored their entire wedding in here. A big-ticket wedding.

Behind the cardboard boxes there’s some luggage – brand-new luggage, a matched set, cherry red in colour.

And behind that, in the farthest, darkest corner, is the groom.”

That’s right, he finds THE GROOM in the storage locker too! WHAT KIND OF CRAZY WORLD IS THIS?? I love it. I’m not going to share any more with you, there is more to the story but you’ll just have to find out for yourself if you really want to know what happens. You do, don’t you? Why is the groom in there? Who put him there? What happened to him? WHYYYYY?

More than one of these stories ends in an utterly unfinished fashion, leaving you staring at the pages in disbelief that there is no more to be found, but leaving your own mind to decide how you would best like the story to continue.

I have read various occasions that Margaret Atwood doesn’t waste a word. Having now had my first Atwood experience, I would agree that that is an absolutely accurate statement to make about her writing.

Rating:

Did not like it  –  It was ok  –  Liked it  –  Really liked it  –  It was amazing

Linking up with Maxabella Loves for The Weekend Rewind

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Oh book fair, how do I love thee

By Janelle

Here in Canberra, the Lifeline charity runs a successful second-hand book fair three times a year, as a major source of their fundraising.  All year long, people drop off their pre-loved books, magazines, games, cd’s, and dvd’s to the charity.  A team of dedicated volunteers sort the books into genres, and handwrite the sale price for the next fair inside the cover (usually between $4-$6).  Around 250,000 items are up for sale every year. The next book fair is on its way and I’m already daydreaming about it!

My personal book collection experienced a noticeable expansion once I discovered the book fair.  All of a sudden, $50 could buy 8 or more books, instead of just 2.  I could afford to be more adventurous than usual.  My book fair loot has included some absolute treasures and new authors to follow, which at times has led to me buying other books by the same author brand-new.  If one of these finds turned out not to be my cup of tea, no matter.  Just donate it back to be re-sold at the next fair.  It’s all for a good cause.  And so the cycle continues.

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Part of a book fair haul

My countdown to the next book fair begins weeks in advance, until I’m counting down the number of sleeps in anticipation of attending my favourite bookish event again.  On book fair weekend, thousands of people ranging from hardcore book fair fanatics through to curious book fair newbies, congregate to the local showgrounds where a massive exhibition hall is fitted out with rows of trestle tables as far as the eye can see, displaying the never-ending supply of books.  Signs sprout up from amongst the crowd, signalling zones like “Fiction”, “Cooking” and “Australiana”.  I enter the hall, trailing my mini luggage case behind me (I’ve learnt from previous experience that my bare hands, or even a carry bag, is completely insufficient), ready to scan book spines until my eyes fall out of my head.  I come prepared, with a bottle of water, snacks, and my books-to-buy wishlist ready to go on my phone.

It’s not only the bliss of being surrounded by thousands of books for my browsing pleasure that makes this event one of my favourite things in the world.  It’s not only the fact that I have a rare opportunity to be free of my children for a couple of hours to wander amongst books in a dreamy daze.  It’s not only the possibility of finding something from my wishlist for an absolute bargain.  Although when all of these things are combined, I am in my own personal nirvana state.  One of the things I love most about the book fair is the people, and getting amongst the local community of readers.

Every book fair without fail, I will have at least one happy encounter with a fellow reader that will just make my day.  Sometimes, the person on the other side of the trestle table will notice the book that I’m perusing and will throw in a helpful endorsement, or vice versa, and we’ll chat for a while over the books in our hands and similar reads that we’ve loved.  Or occasionally I might get a thumbs up or a congratulatory comment if I happen to snag something particularly awesome, in which case I will always gasp out loud, so everyone in my immediate vicinity naturally turns towards me and inspects whatever it is I’ve picked up off the table.

Mel, the other half of Little Blog of Books, is my regular book fair companion, and generally we will swap the names of a few titles we are each seeking before we hit the tables.  Two pairs of eyes are better than one.  We tend to stick together as we make our way around the hall, one of each side of the trestle table, moving in parallel unison, so we can continue to chat as we inspect the goodies on offer.

At the last book fair, I spied The Magicians by Lev Grossman, having just recently finished it (and loved it).  I gasped so loud as my hand shot out like a lizard’s tongue to grab it, the three or four people around us all stopped and looked at me, and after I began babbling away to my sister about how great it was, the woman across the table leaned in and said “Really? Well if you don’t take it, I’ll have it instead!”

Once, I happened to spot something that was on my sister’s wishlist – a brand new complete-to-date set of the Song of Ice and Fire series.  We practically got a standing ovation from everyone within a 5-metre radius.

The book fair is also where a nerdy couple convinced my husband to try out a new fantasy series he’d never heard of, placing the books in his hands carefully like they were passing on some kind of divine gift.  It’s where I’m going to slowly build up a Goosebumps and Babysitter’s Club collection for my kids, in my effort to relive my 90’s childhood through them.  It’s where I’m open to new reading possibilities, taking chances on authors I haven’t read and books I’ve never heard of.

Heaven is an exhibition hall filled with cheap second-hand books and the people who love them.

Will we be seeing you at the book fair?

Joining in with Maxabella Loves and friends for The Weekend Rewind

Read by Janelle: August 2015 – Down Under by Bill Bryson

Down Under

by Bill Bryson

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Published 2000

Genres: Non-Fiction / Travel & Adventure / Humour

In the motel, I dumped my bag and reflexively switched on the TV. It came up on the cricket, and I sat on the foot of the bed and watched it with unwonted absorption for some minutes. Needless to say, very little was happening on the pitch. An official in a white coat was chasing after a blown piece of paper and several of the players were examining the ground by the stumps, evidently looking for something. I couldn’t think what, but then one of the commentators noted that England had just lost a wicket, so I supposed it was that. After a time a lanky young man in the outfield, who had been polishing a ball on his trouser leg as if about to take a bite from it, broke into a loping run. At length he hurled the ball at the distant batsman, who insouciantly lifted his bat an inch from the ground and putted it back to him. These motions were scrupulously replicated three times more, then the commentator said: ‘And so at the end of the four hundred and fifty-second over, as we break for afternoon nap, England have increased their total to seventeen. So still quite a lot of work for them to do if they’re going to catch Australia before fourth snack.”

 

Janelle says…

The two-story compendium you see in the picture above is the first Bill Bryson I’ve ever owned, or read. I picked it up on a whim at one of our local bookfairs, knowing only that Bryson was a name in travel and adventure non-fiction and was supposedly funny. It was the first, but it won’t be the last.

I fell in love from the first few pages of the first story in the book, A Walk In The Woods (soon to be turned into a movie starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. Not happy about the choice of actors). Immediately, I wanted to step out my front door and walk to somewhere wild and far away. Although, maybe not as wild or far away as the Appalachian Trail. I don’t know that I’ll ever be willing to risk being eaten by bears after reading this.

But this review is not about A Walk In The Woods, it’s about the second story in this collection – Down Under. In which Bryson explores this fascinating country from east to west and top to bottom, by rail, car and foot, and manages to see more of it in 4 weeks than I have in my entire lifetime living here.

Firstly, a disclaimer. This book was written in 2000. Things have changed in Australia since then – in politics, in infrastructure, in global status, in most ways really. Bryson’s views in this book must be taken with a grain of 15-year-old salt.

Most of Bryson’s observations aren’t too surprising. The outback is vast and empty. Sydney is sparkling and sprawling. Adelaide is lush and pretty. Canberra is spacious but boring (not true! I’m offended!). But he does bring up some interesting points as an outsider. He speaks to white Australians about Indigenous Australians whenever the opportunity presents itself, persisting to ask questions and try to understand the situation even when it is clear that for some people the topic is uncomfortable. He learns of the events in our fractured history, and becomes aware that there is still a definite divide between the two peoples of the country. But although he seems to build a solid grasp of how the realities of life differ for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and reflects on this with sadness, he admits that he doesn’t know what the answer is to solving the problems, but that something needs to be done and now.

He also comments again and again on Australia’s invisible status to the rest of the world, despite the many examples given of feats of exploration, miracles of science and nature, amazing people and fascinating tales that emanate from the land down under. By the end of the book, he seems to be stumped as to why Australia has not been given the credit he believes it does deserve.

For me, the most amusing parts of this book were the (many) parts where Bryson obsesses over our diverse and bizarre flora and fauna, in particular, the fauna of the deadly variety. I can’t help but enjoy it when foreigners become fixated on the numerous dangerous creatures we share this space with, and how the hell we manage to not be killed every day. Bryson too can’t seem to fathom how we get away with it. I don’t know, Bill, we just do!

 

“You probably won’t see any redbacks out there,’ Sonja reassured us. ‘Snakes are much more of a problem.’

This intelligence was received with four raised eyebrows and expressions that said: ‘Go on.’

She nodded. ‘Common brown, western puff pastry, yellow-backed lockjaw, eastern groin groper, dodge viper….’ I don’t remember what she said exactly, but it was a long list. ‘But don’t worry,’ she continued. ‘Most snakes don’t want to hurt you. If you’re out in the bush and a snake comes along, just stop dead and let it slide over your shoes.’

This, I decided, was the least-likely-to-be-followed advice I had ever been given.

 

Bryson learns something through his travels about the Australian way – which is generally easygoing, laidback, witty and humorous, with a sense of community and “we’re all in this together”. He is most definitely taken with the country, and I believe the connection he felt on his trip is due to the fact that he likely personally possesses these qualities too.

Down Under, and indeed, Bill Bryson in general, will suit you if you love sarcastic humour, and are curious about the world around you and the people in it.

 

Rating:

Did not like it  –  It was ok  –  Liked it  –  Really liked it  –  It was amazing

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Read together: July 2015 – Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

July 2015 – Janelle’s choice

Annihilation

by Jeff VanderMeer

annihilation

Published 2014

Genres: Fiction / Sci-Fi

“The air was so clean, so fresh, while the world back beyond the border was what it had always been during the modern era: dirty, tired, imperfect, winding down, at war with itself. Back there, I had always felt as if my work amounted to a futile attempt to save us from who we are.”

The biologist has joined the twelfth expedition to Area X – an area uncharted and lost to the rest of society, affected by an unspecified environmental disaster we know only as The Event. With no clear objective, only vague details of the landscape, and an awareness of the ill-fated eleven expeditions before them, the four expedition members are wary of their surroundings and one another. They soon discover things existing in this desolated place that none of them have ever come across before. What has happened in Area X? What happened to the members of the expeditions before them? And can they trust each other?

 

Janelle says…

I found the writing to be report-like a lot of the time, which made sense as it was written as one of the character’s field journals. But with the language being somewhat clinical at times, this caused me to zone out at times and I had to read some sections over repeatedly before I was clear on what was being said.

“The recurring data points found in the journals that related to repeating cycles and fluctuations of seasons of the strange and ordinary were useful in establishing trends.”

See what I mean?

This meant it wasn’t a fast read, even though the book is under 200 pages! I wasn’t drawn in until about a quarter of the way through the book. Strange things start to happen, but as you’re following the story through the biologist’s eyes, you’re just as clueless as she is.

You don’t find out where Area X is in relation to the “real” world. You don’t find out what happened in Area X to set it apart. You don’t find out why The Southern Reach are sending expeditions in to Area X. You don’t find out any logical explanations for anything that happens or anything that is seen in Area X. You don’t even find out the names of any of the characters mentioned in the whole book.

Sounds like there are a lot of holes? There are, but that’s half the fun of the book – trying to put two and two together, coming up with your own theories….it becomes a puzzle to solve. Although I don’t think I got close to solving it. Maybe it can’t be solved? I’ll just have to read the other two books in the trilogy to find out.

I found underlying themes in this book of overcoming grief and loneliness, how we can be hindered by these states and how we can be helped by them. But mostly, it’s just an interesting piece of sci-fi fun, I don’t think there are aspirations for literary greatness here. I haven’t read The Hunger Games series, but having seen one of the movies, I thought this story was vaguely reminiscent. HG fans might like to give it a try. You’d also like this book if you like stories that have you trying to solve riddles and connect dots.

I did enjoy this book, I thought it was just the right size, and I’ll be continuing on with the next book in the series to learn what happens next in Area X!

Rating:

Did not like it  –  It was ok  –  Liked it  –  Really liked it  –  It was amazing

Mel says…

To be honest until Janelle suggested this book for our second joint review, I had never even heard of the author, Jeff VanderMeer. The initial description of this series sounded intriguing and I was honestly excited about reading this book. Then I started reading…

I found this book so confusing and frustrating. I didn’t understand who was who as the characters don’t go by their actual names, but by their specialised area, for example – The Biologist, The Psychologist, The Surveyor, The Anthropologist and The Linguist. If you are like me and have bare minimum science interest/knowledge, these titles and ways in which the characters were described will go straight over your head.

By page 40 I was struggling to scrape the desire from the bottom of the barrel to pick the book up and continue. Ok, that is a tad harsh, but you get the point.

On a positive note, there were parts of the book that I found interesting, but then it would revert to science-speak and I would be lost all over again. I am not a fan of sci-fi and honestly struggle to understand the lingo, so I struggled to finish this book. Sorry folks, this one was a flop for me!

Rating:

Did not like it  –  It was ok  –  Liked it  –  Really liked it  –  It was amazing

Linking up with I Blog on Tuesdays at Essentially Jess, and The Weekend Rewind with Maxabella Loves and friends

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